Po’Boy History & 11 Favorite Po’Boy Spots!

Author: Dr. Nicole Caridad Ralston, @EatenPathNola / EatenPathNola.com 

The po'boy or the poorboy?!

This is a serious question for locals and lovers of New Orleans food, alike. Believe it or not, the jury is still out on whether there's a correct choice between the terms, but one thing is for certain: they are delicious! If you haven't had a po'boy yet (my preferred term), then you are seriously missing out on a local, treasured, dish. Po'boys are traditionally served on french bread with their ends cut-off. The bread is stuffed with your choice of fried seafood, ham and cheese, hot sausage, french fries - you name it and it probably exists somewhere in a New Orleans restaurant or corner store. Oh, and these sandwiches come fully dressed (meaning with mayo, juicy tomatoes, and crisp lettuce)! Unless you prefer them un-dressed (and who would want to do that to the poor thing)?!

Shrimp Po'Boy (or Poorboy...)

These famous sandwiches have a fascinating past and are tied deeply to the culture of Black New Orleanians, who make up over 60% of our beloved city's population. The knowledge and labor that enslaved Africans and Black people brought (read: forced to bring due to enslavement) to New Orleans are what created the foundations of much our city's culture and foodways. In fact, the first po’boy loaves were baked by Black New Orleanians in an Italian immigrant-owned bakery who supplied bread to Cajun restaurateurs in The Quarter. Local food historians say that the official poorboy sandwiches came about during the streetcar strike of 1929 when several working-class Black and white streetcar conductors went on strike for the unfair contract negotiations that were occurring at their expense. At the time, the Martin Brothers' French Market Restaurant and Coffee Stand promised to feed any striking conductors. The legend states that anytime the brothers saw a striking streetcar conductor walk near they would say, "Here comes another poorboy!", and would give them a roast beef poorboy made from elongated french bread. Some historians state that this is where the distinction between the poorboy and the po’boy originates: poorboys were for striking streetcar conductors who were revered in the community and po’boys were for the impoverished, unhoused people of The Quarter. Restaurant owners were said to have given out po’boys made of stale bread, day old meat and gravy to these po’boys if they came to their stands.

The story doesn’t stop there though! The Martins became so famous for their roast beef poboy that they moved to a new location in a predominantly white neighborhood. Many of their original Black and African American customers, whose families became loyal supporters during the strike, were no longer able to eat inside the restaurant and had to order at the take-out “colored only” window due to racially motivated segregation practices. Throughout the 1930s, 60s, and 70s po’boys sandwiches gained immense popularity throughout the region. Restaurant owners and chefs could never quite agree on which term to call these sandwiches though, and historians point to both terms being used throughout the period. Eventually, it seems that po’boy won, even though some historians reveal that during the Civil Rights movement many white New Orleanians refused to call the sandwiches “po’boys” due to racist beliefs that only Black New Orleanians used that term. 

Roast Beef Po'Boy (or Poorboy...)

In case you thought this story was over, I would be remiss if I didn’t add a few more things! First, some historians believe the po’boy was invented long before the Martins popularized it, but it may have gone by another name: “loaves” which were usually made of fried oysters. These loaves show up in cookbooks as far back as the 1760s, but historians aren’t sure if french bread was used for this variation. Second, other historians say that the word po’boy was used a decade before the streetcar strike when Sidney Bechet, a Black New Orleanian and famous jazz musician, wrote in his journal that he ate a ham po’boy with Louis Armstrong during around 1919. Third, there’s just not enough historical documentation to say for certain when and how this favorite sandwich began, but one thing is for sure: the streetcar strikers story is definitely the most popular and that tale is probably how the sandwich catapulted into regional fame.

Are you ready to sink your teeth into a historical po’boy?! Check out the list below for my Top 11 favorites, listed in no particular order. Why 11? It’s my favorite number! If you want to check out more of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans then check out my Instagram blog @EatenPathNola and my website: www.eatenpathnola.com.

Happy feasting!

Off the Eaten Path NOLA’s Favorite Spots for Po’Boys: